Karen Joy Fowler’s existential novel takes a walk through the past, present, and future of Rosemary’s life, as she attempts to make sense of events in her childhood that go on to define the rest of her life.
If you imagine this book as a walk through an art gallery (weird analogy, I know, but there’s sense in it), the viewer begins in the middle of the gallery. They walk straight in, bypass the art at the front entrance and go straight for the centre of the room.
They look at some of the smaller pieces first, taking in each one with a measure of intrigue and fascination, before moving back to the pieces at the entrance. These are the big, bold pieces; the Cézannes and the Turners; the powerhouses of the art world. They fill the viewer with an increasing thrill as each piece of artwork is unveiled before them. Then, abruptly, the viewer moves right to the end of the gallery, looking only at one or two pieces, before going back to the entrance again. Then into the middle again to look at new works.
It’s a dizzying trip, but that’s the beauty of an art gallery, there’s no set order in which you have to view the paintings. Joy Fowler’s novel is similar to this, in the manner of it’s chronology. The narrator dances backwards and forth between different points of her life, teasing at our expectations of a standard chronological structure, and discarding them chapter by chapter.
The majority of the story centres on Rosemary as an adult, looking back on her childhood with more insight and more of a desire to find out the truth of what lead her sister, Fern, to disappear. I’ll not spoil too much if you haven’t read it, but Fern is not who we think, and her disappearance is shrouded in mystery for two thirds of the book. These two thirds focus on Rosemary and Fern as youngsters, and while I can understand that Joy Fowler wants to build up their sibling bond – so we as an audience understand the colossal emotional trauma the family feels when Fern disappears – the plot does begin to tire somewhat.
The stories that make up this section are perhaps not as smoothly connected as they could be, in part due to the fluctuating chronology, which works on a larger scale between the overall plot segments, but is not as effective across individual chapters. As someone who has just graduated from an MA, I found the university arc of the story far more engaging than the younger years, perhaps on principle of my own personal interests, but the childhood chapters were just a touch too long.
Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed the twists and turns of the book, and the emotion inscribed into every page was stunning to read. The prose is clever in the way it weaves psychological theory and animal studies research fluidly into the plot, and the aspects of language and sign language fascinated me all the way to the final page. Joy Fowler is shrewd in the way she reveals details of the mystery gradually, dropping bombshells masterfully from chapter to chapter.